Let This Be the Year

For however democratic a lawn may be with respect to one’s neighbors, with respect to nature it is authoritarian.  Under the Toro’s brutal indiscriminate rotor, the landscape is subdued, homogenized, dominated utterly.  I became convinced that lawn care had about as much to do with gardening as floor waxing or road paving.  Gardening is a subtle process of give and take with the landscape, a search for some middle ground between culture and nature.  A lawn is nature under culture’s boot.

Michael Pollan

Second Nature, 1991



An immense, green velvet lawn surrounding one’s house has been the ideal ever since the Romantic movement in England in the early 18th Century, a status symbol eagerly embraced by Americans.  In the United States, it was promoted by Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted after the Civil War—they dictated that individual front lawns should all flow together along an entire street, unimpeded by hedges, fences, or walls.  In 1870, the cause was taken up by Frank J. Scott, who wrote and published The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, probably the most influential book about landscaping and gardening ever written.  In his mind, front yards belonged not to the homeowner, but to the public; anyone who didn’t maintain an open, manicured front lawn was not only unneighborly, but unchristian, as well.

But it is only been since the 1950’s that a whole new industry came about to make that dream come true for everyone, no matter how humble.  Gasoline powered mowers, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides became available to every homeowner, and spending several hours every weekend mowing and tending the lawn became a ritual.  The “Industrial Lawn,” clean, green, and sterile that looked the same in Phoenix, Atlanta, Boston, or Chicago, became the ideal.  As actual physical labor became distasteful to millions of upwardly mobile people, lawn services were hired to mow, clip, and spread ever more chemicals, in order to give homeowners the time and energy to jog or join health clubs so they could keep physically fit.

In the United States, about 62,500 square miles are covered with turf (Douglas W. Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home,2007).  According to a Gallup survey, 26 million households spent more than $17.4 billion on home lawn and landscape maintenance in 1999 (Chicago Tribune, 26 November 2000).

Kentucky Blue Grass (Poa pratensis), not native to Kentucky, but to Europe, is a cool-season grass that grows without help in our area only in the cool, rainy spring and cool fall weather; it goes dormant in the hot, humid summer months  (there is no area in the United States that has enough rainfall to grow Kentucky blue grass through the summer without artificial water).  Only by applying copious amounts of water and high nitrogen fertilizer, can it be kept green all summer, but at what cost?

Need I point out that such an approach to “nature” is not likely to be environmentally sound?  Lately we have begun to recognize that we are poisoning ourselves with our lawns, which receive on average more pesticide and herbicide per acre than any crop grown in the country.

 Michael Pollan

Second Nature

We are ruining the ecosystems of rivers and degrading river water quality with the enormous runoff of chemicals in the way of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides applied to our lawns (according to Newsweek magazine, homeowners use 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre than farmers do).  A 1993 study estimated U.S. homeowners used 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides a year (Chicago Tribune, 26 November 2000).  We look with horror at industries dumping pollutants into our rivers, but 80% of the chemicals getting into our rivers come in on soil particles.

Herbicides spread on lawns are considered unsafe for pets, because they walk in the treated grass and then lick their paws, allowing the chemical into their digestive system.  Do we really want our children playing amongst those same chemicals?

Gasoline lawn mowers pollute our air: one lawn mower burns about i gallon of gasoline per acre per mowing.  In a 36-week growing season that included 18-36 mowings per year, 288 t0 576 pounds of CO2 per acre are emitted into the atmosphere.  If the same landscape were converted to native grassland there could be that much less CO2 burned, indeed carbon would be sequestered.  (Gerould Wilhelm, The Realities of CO2:Seeing Through the Smog of Rhetoric and Politics)

Even worse are hedge trimmers, string trimmers, and leaf blowers.  Ken Westlake, an official in the Chicago office of the U.S. EPA states that lawn and garden equipment produce 60 tons of the region’s daily total of 747 tons of volatile organic emissions, an amount equal to 1/4 of all the motor vehicles in the region (Chicago Tribune, Dec. 22, 1999).

 Lawns, I am convinced, are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship to the land.  They teach us that, with the help of petrochemicals and technology, we can bend nature to our will.  Lawns stroke our hubris with regard to the land.

Michael Pollan

Second Nature

 But the tide has begun to turn, ever so slowly.  Reducing high maintenance lawn areas in suburbia by at least half is now a goal of the environmental movement.

 So let this be the year.

Step 1  Design your garden to a 1/4”= 1 foot scale on a piece of graph paper or use one of my designs in my book.  While my design were all, of course, drawn to scale, they were not printed to scale.

Step 2  Use your hose to make an outline of the garden on the ground.   Spray paint  with lawn paint along the hose outline.  When done, remove hose.

Step 3  Remove grass.  The fastest way, of course, is to use a sod cutter;  one can hire someone to do it or it can be rented for a half or whole day.  Or one can solarize the area where you want the garden, laying down  newspapers, cardboard’, or black plastic over the turf, covering it with mulch, sand, or compost from last fall’s leaves.  This will take an entire season to work {spring through summer, or autumn through winter).

Step 4  Lay out the plants: plugs 1’ on center, #1 (or 1 gal) pots  2’ O.C.  When you are satisfied with your design, install your plants, starting in the middle, working your way to the edges.  Plant the plants level with the soil, neither lower nor higher than the existing grade.  I like to add water to the hole before planting, but that slows down the process; so that’s up to you.  When you are through, water each plant separately.  You may want to apply mulch–I don’t use it myself, but it does keep down weeds the first year and gives a nice finished look.


With a smaller lawn area, one could get rid of the noisy, polluting gasoline-powered lawn mower and buy an old-fashioned, hand-powered reel mower.

Lora mowing lawn

Lightweight materials and new designs have made the modern reel mowers easier to push, as well as staying sharper longer.

side yard June

My lawn- in early June; just a wide path, really–all one needs.

side yard August

Here it is in August.  Prairie plants are bountiful–your gardens will look like this within 3 years.







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